The Pima Unified School District governing board voted 4-1 Monday night to allow asymptomatic children exposed to COVID-19 to attend school as long as they’re masked and socially distanced.

The decision was made after a 30-minute hearing attended by roughly three dozen parents, a handful of whom addressed the board and spoke in favor of the measure. The topic was also discussed last week during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Although the new policy is in direct conflict with the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state and local health officials, the parents who spoke said the benefits of having their children in school far outweighs the risk of getting COVID-19.

Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center radiologic technologist Rachel Curtis, who has three children in Pima schools, spoke in favor of the new policy.

“The disease is real. It is contagious and it is scary,” Curtis said. “If they follow the safety measures, including wearing a mask while on campus, that will be sufficient for the safety of the students and our community. The local medical staff is the example of this standard being effective.”

Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert said the proposed plan was sent out to staff, parents and members of the community for their input and he sat down with teachers Monday afternoon to discuss it.

Rickert stressed everyone realizes how dangerous the virus is and no one is taking the virus lightly.

“Our job is to provide every student a quality education in a safe environment in partnership with our parents and community and what we’re hearing from community and from our parents is they want kids in school, that just because a kid may have been at the same place as somebody else that tested positive but has no symptoms, that’s not a reason to keep them out of school,” Rickert said.

The superintendent also pointed out parents of exposed children can always choose to keep them home if they’d like and the district will ensure they are provided their course work.

Governing board member Melissa Batty was the sole board member to vote against the new policy, saying she preferred students to be quarantined and offered distance learning.

In response to Curtis’ comments, Batty pointed out that while medical professionals do wear masks while working with COVID-19 patients, they are N95 masks, which are much more effective than most other masks.

She asked if the students would be wearing N95 masks.

“That’s something I would want to see, these masks these kids bring in, who have been quarantined, exposed, that they have proper masks, they’re not these little thin ones or crocheted ones with holes. They need to be proper masks. I want to make sure that happens,” Batty said.

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She also questioned if teachers and coaches would be trained on the proper way to wear masks and if the kids would be separated by at least three feet from each other. Rickert answered in the affirmative.

Batty urged parents to tell their children how serious it is to go without a mask, pointing out it’s actually considered a misdemeanor crime to knowingly expose others to an illness.

At that point, board member Shawn Wright jumped in with a question. “How serious is it to have a whole generation of uneducated kids?” he asked.

If the district had continued offering distance learning, Batty said the district wouldn’t be having problems now. She also pointed out that last year, the district required masks with likely mitigated the spread.

Beginning Sept. 29, a new state law banning such mandates will take effect.

“I know the risk is low of catching it, but I’m still very concerned about students being exposed here at school, taking it home, exposing their parents and it’s the parents who can get sick,” Batty said. “We have two mothers of Pima students right now down in the Phoenix Valley hospitalized with COVID. It’s scary and I don’t want to see that continue so I think we need to be very, very, very strict in these rules and guidelines.”

She continued.

“There can not be a slip up. I can’t have that on my conscious that I allowed infected people on campus, infecting others and eventually a student’s parent died because of that. I don’t want to see a child feeling guilty because they’re the one who brought that disease to their parent and they died,” she said.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Graham County has increased by 176 since the start of school Aug. 4 and according to the health department, 77% of the cases were amongst people 44 and younger.

Sixty-five of the new cases were amongst people under the age of 20.

More than 200 Graham County and nearly 70 Greenlee County residents were battling COVID-19 as of Thursday.

Shaylee Richards, a spokeswoman for Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center, said Monday afternoon that while the hospital was averaging five COVID-19 patients a day last week, that number doubled over the weekend.

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